NORMS DEFINED: Norms are generally the unwritten, unstated rules that govern the behavior of a group. Norms often just evolve and are socially enforced through social sanctioning. Norms are often passed down through time by a culture or society. Norms are intended to provide stability to a group and only a few in a group will refuse to abide by the norms. A group may hold onto norms that are no longer needed, similar to holding on to bad habits just because they have always been part of the group. Some norms are unhealthy and cause a poor communication among people. Often groups are not aware of the unwritten norms that exist. New people to the group have to discover these norms on their own over a period of time and may face sanction just because they did not know a norm existed. At the end of the exercise, I give some actual examples of norms that I have encountered in groups.


This exercise is best done after you have had an opportunity to observe the group for a period of time to discoverer some of their norms. The first time I did this exercise I was doing a workshop with 50 high school teachers. After about 2 hours, I could tell their norms were stopping honest communication. I stopped the regular workshop and went into a norms exercise.

I divided the large group into small groups of five. I told them 3 norms I had observed in the group that seemed to be stopping honest communication. I asked each group to discuss the norms and come up with 5 more they knew were active in this group at work as well as in this workshop. They were to write these on poster paper so they could present them to the large group. I gave them 30-45 minutes to do this exercise.

While they were working, I walked around to each group and answered any questions they had in an effort to get them to think. Sometimes a group will get stuck and can't seem to come up with any norms. These may be new people to this group. So, I will combine this group with another group that is doing well with the exercise.

The teachers group came up with 26 different norms. The large group discussed each of these in terms of how useful they were or if they were unhealthy and if they could eliminate any norms.

Another way you can decide what norms to keep and which to discard is to have the group vote on the norms. Hand out 5 red dots to each person so they get to vote on the 5 norms they want to keep, and only one vote per norm. Have the norms written on down and posted. All members of the group vote at one time quickly. After the vote, you will graphically see which norms get the most votes and they stay. Usually about 30% will get high votes and about 20% will get no votes. In one group I did, they had 20 norms and 6 got most of the votes and 9 got no votes or only one vote. After further discussion, this group decided to keep 9 of the norms, but modified several of the keepers.

The exercise is easy to do. The groups often start off slow but build momentum as they discover the unwritten rules that govern behavior of their group. If is often exciting for them and sometime they may even get angry at their discoveries.


Example 1: This was a business engaged in scientific tasting of products, but mainly flavoring added to liquid medications. There were about 35 employees. They stared off very slowly mainly because some of the norms had been caused by the management of the group and there was fear in stating them. But given time and encouragement, they did state them. One norm had been caused by a former employee that had written a nasty letter to all the employees as he left the company. Another was caused by misunderstanding of statements by the president of the company. This person, when confronted, with this immediately set things straight and that norm was ended. Other norms were evaluated and some discarded, some saved. Overall it was a very healthy exercise.

Example 2: This was a large group of people that lived in an intentional community. The community had undergone considerable chaos and the group had unknowingly divided into 5 different opinion subgroups. As these groups continued to function in a very critical mode, the unwritten norms became more and more for protection and security. Each subgroup was made to defend their own needs or at least they felt they had to do this. The five groups were brought into a meeting to make discoveries about their differences. A long discussion evolved in the large group that became more and more chaotic, but that was needed to get all issues out on the table. After a period of time, I called a halt to the open discussion and said we would divide into 5 small groups with one person from each subgroup making up the small groups. One subgroup refused to participate and left the group. The other four subgroups stayed and went into the small group to discover their norms. They worked on this for about 70 minutes. Then the presentations to the large group started. This lasted about another 90 minutes with the discussions. When it was over, all of the unhealthy norms were discarded because understanding in the discussion made them no longer necessary. A few new norms were created. These four subgroups became one group again in the community. The fifth group, which had only 6 people, continued to remain hostile to the others and over several years destroyed the group.

More examples coming later.

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